La Dispute Isn’t Just a Sad Band

Jordan Dreyer talks to Sam Woodring (Mister Goblin) about Panorama, the pressures of making “sad” music, and the movie Bubble Boy.

In the Summer of 2015, I knew exactly two things about the band La Dispute: 1.) They did that “darling” song that a friend played me once, which at the time I found vaguely frightening. 2) They were taking my band Two Inch Astronaut to Europe for some reason.

In the absence of other information, my bandmates and I admittedly grew skeptical in advance of the tour. We heard troubling rumors of their rabid and singularly devoted fanbase, as well as their supposedly intense and impenetrable personalities. We wondered, “What if we get stuck on a bus for a month with a bunch of perennially somber literature buffs?” “What if their fans think we’re goofy clowns who dress like seventh graders?” “Is there any possible way that this singer could be ‘chill’ to hang out with?”

Within two minutes of meeting the band, our fears were put to rest. Everybody was immediately friendly and easy-going, and our first observation of frontman Jordan Dreyer was of him bouncing onto the tour bus, spiritedly belting a medley of Matchbox Twenty songs. We all breathed a silent, collective sigh of relief. That sigh deepened throughout the night as we saw that the band’s fans did not, in fact, crawl on top of them as they lay prostrate on stage as we had heard. What we saw instead were hard-working, thoughtful musicians who saved all of their supposed intensity and seriousness for the stage, where they delivered highly aerobic and passionate performances to their (mostly non-male) fans, who they gracefully bore an unusual amount of responsibility to.

What finally sold me completely, though, was the first time I could discern the lyrics to “First Reactions After Falling Through Ice.” Instrumentally, it had always been my favorite song of theirs, but one night live I was finally able to make out the climax where Dreyer belts, “I was standing naked, checking to see if my phone still worked!” WHAT?! I nearly spat out my weird flat German beer. On its own, the image seems completely ridiculous — something only a blessed few would dare to yell/chirp on a track. In the context of the rest of the song (an extended metaphor in which the speaker survives a fall into sub-zero waters but can think only of how their ex might react if they knew they were in mortal peril, I think) it sent shivers through me, watching the kids in the front lose themselves spitting those enjambed syllables back at the band.

Such is the appeal of La Dispute: They can tickle you as they bowl you over. They deal in such extremes that it can almost come off as absurd, but they maintain a powerful relatability. You can look in on the characters in their songs, even laugh or point at them as they’re drawn out dramatically and vigilantly over the band’s just as carefully constructed din, but they’re so well-developed that you can’t help but hear yourself.

—Sam Woodring

Sam Woodring: So here’s my one and only question — are you ready?

Jordan Dreyer: I think I’m ready.

Sam: What’s the furthest thing from music?

Jordan: Oh, wow. A philosophical heavy-hitter right off the bat.

Sam: I don’t play, Jordan.

Jordan: I don’t know, music is so many things, it’s hard to find an antonym. I think the furthest thing from music is… capitalism.

Sam: Damn!

Jordan: This sounds incredibly lame in my head and probably way lamer spoken, but it’s hard to separate music from my very existence. It’s a means of survival for me; I can’t think of something that would more directly suppress the creative process than it being solely a means of sustenance.

I said capitalism mostly as a joke, but it feels somewhat appropriate. But it also feels kind of contradictory, because it is what I do for a living.

Sam: So how do you reconcile that?

Jordan: I think it’s something that I’m still trying to figure out in a lot of ways. I think that you need to reconcile if it’s for something that you don’t know whether or not you’re being true to your impulses creatively. I don’t feel contradictory or hypocritical earning money off of something that’s very organic — it feels more or less right to be doing.

I feel like it’s a particularly interesting topic right now. I saw people talking on the internet the other day about how infrequently people in the punk community talk about artists selling out [now], because that was such a thing growing up. People, I think, aren’t making money like they used to, so there’s not as substantial a payoff from a smaller label to a bigger label. It’s much more about survival, I guess. It’s super complicated now to sell your art. At least I think it is, I don’t really have anything to compare it to.

Sam: But you guys have kind been through different phases of the music industry.

Jordan: When we started making music, we were still printing off Mapquest directions and we were booking our shows on Myspace [and] on BYOFL.org [the online version of Maximum Rock & Roll’s Book Your Own Fucking Life]. We were still selling CDs. So we have gone through some transitions.

Sam: Do you feel like Myspace was better for booking tours? Because I’ve heard that a lot from people who were doing it then, that it was a superior tool.

Jordan: Definitely. It has the association with that particular posed profile pic, and a certain haircut, but I think it was the best social media service. For us, we can attribute a considerable amount of our success to the foundation laid by the bands that we met on Myspace. A lot of the friends that we play with, we met from messaging them on Myspace. It’s weird to think about. Bandcamp is probably the closest thing [now], but there’s less of a social aspect to it.

How did you book tours when you first started?

Sam: I first started touring in 2009 or ‘10? I wasn’t personally doing any of the booking. I think some of it was by phone, though, if I’m remembering right. Because this was very, like, hardcore crust punk, snobby “punks only” kinda shit.

Jordan: Did you have any experience — I guess you weren’t booking, but there were a couple different websites that were kind of compendiums of DIY venues across the country. There was Myspace, and two different websites that were directories of all the house show spaces in the country.

Sam: I don’t know how it was for you guys, but the first couple tours that I did were just unbelievably bad. Like, lost so much money. I remember driving to Pittsburgh and there was no show — there wasn’t even a venue.

Jordan: Hell yeah. Maybe one in three shows was good, and a good show was like: You got a decent amount of $5 bills in the donation hat, a place to sleep, and, like, a vegan chili with pasta, or whatever.

Sam: I feel like for the bands that I know now that are starting off touring, there’s more ways to ensure that you’re gonna have an OK time. Do you feel like that loses some of the romance?

Jordan: When we have conversations about those first tours, we think about it in very romantic terms. We laugh about, like, showing up to a kid’s garage in Massachusetts and they’re building a stage out of pallet racks, and there’s no PA, and the kid who booked the show looks at you and goes, “I honestly don’t know if anyone’s gonna come, I didn’t put up flyers or anything.” And you’re like, holy fucking shit! We just drove seven hours, we have no money, we’re making soba noodles and peanut butter on a propane burner between the van and trailer, and you just told me you didn’t do anything to promote the show? I guess that’s the pitfall of booking that way.

But for every show that was a terrible experience and we lost money, we made another connection and met another band from another town who’ll show up in Cedar Falls, Iowa or something. I find myself making less of those connections and less of those friendships now.

Sam: It is funny to look back at where you met certain people and think, Oh, that was at that complete waste of a show.

Jordan: It’s the shared shitty experience. So, yeah, let’s change our band names and get back in the basement.

Sam: You wanna start a supergroup?

Jordan: Hell yeah, just me and you. I can bring very little to the table though, Sam.

Sam: I can bring even less, so we’re gonna have a barren table.

Jordan: [Laughs.] You bring your ability to play instruments and sing like an angel. I can introduce you, that’ll be my job. I’ll be touring MC for Mister Goblin. I could be like a wrestling announcer.

Sam: “At 5’9”, and otherwise indistinguished —”

Jordan: [Laughs] We have the same physical description.

Sam: I know, I think I got mistaken for you a couple times from behind by kids near the [tour] bus.

Jordan: We look like we could be related. We’re both standard-issue, small-ishly built white guys.

Sam: Exactly, and that’s what this is all about — people wanna know what two small-ishly built white guys talk about when they’re alone. [Laughs.]

But now, you took your lumps, you did your time; Now you’ve got this new album [Panorama] coming out. You guys have that song “Fulton Street” — I read that interview in Rolling Stone where you talk about what it was about. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but it’s kind of like the feeling of being around somebody who’s been through a lot when you haven’t really, and wondering whether you could deal with those things?

Jordan: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. Having spent a considerable amount of my adult life talking about heavy topics that revolve pretty exclusively around tragic events and having [gone through] very little myself, it’s something that I thought about quite a bit when I was starting to think about this record. Hearing the stories that I touch on in that song, which are very connected to my partner, and experiencing grief indirectly made me wonder, A: How to help someone grieve, and B: How would I react in an comparable situation? How equipped am I to handle something like that?

Sam: That’s something that I think about a lot too — like what I’m doing now starting out in social work, I’m working with people who have been through lots of trauma and tragedy, and like you, I’m relatively untouched by a lot of those things. Those questions come up for me a lot — is this even my place? Am I capable of doing this? The only other song I’ve heard that addresses that is “The Impression That I Get” by Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

Jordan: I never really thought about what that song was about, but you’re absolutely right. I think about it fairly often playing shows, when people come up to talk to me about how something we’ve done has helped them cope or allowed them some degree of catharsis in the face of something awful. I always feel weird hearing it, because what authority do I have? I feel guilty.

My girlfriend interned recently at an acute care facility, and the things that she has to experience just by virtue of her occupation is so much more than I’m capable of. She tells me these stories and I know deep down that I am not cut out for that. I imagine that you’re afforded a degree of instruction, right? How much can you be equipped to handle those conversations as a social worker?  

Sam: It’s interesting that you say you wouldn’t be cut out to deal with those kinds of things, because it seems to me that you are. I’ve seen people come up to you at shows and it’s almost like a deeper kind of connection, because it’s not just like they’re approaching someone they’re seeking services from; they have this really intense connection with your music and are sort of unloading this stuff onto you. It seems like a kind of clinical work, in a way. I’d never toured with a band that had that kind of responsibility to their fans.

Jordan: Since I somewhat recklessly decided to talk about things like that in songs, I’ve always emphasized being an observant narrator and being as objective as I possibly could be. I’m not trying to push anyone in a particular direction; I’m just kind of dictating a series of events, and I think that lets people put themselves in the position of the narrator.

Sam: That’s a lot of what I like about your approach. It’s depersonalized. Also, I hear in your music a lot of socio-political commentary. Do you feel like that’s the case?

Jordan: I think it is unavoidably present. Even if we’re not sitting down and trying to comment directly on the current social climate, I think it’s inevitably there. I contemplated before we wrote this record writing a political one, because it sort of feels like what I should be doing — what we should be doing, what people should be doing — but ultimately I knew that it would be there anyway.

Maybe I’m just paying more attention, but I feel like there’s been so much good music lately, and it’s hard to not consider the possibility that the current cultural climate is influencing people to make powerful art, whether or not they’re saying “fuck you” to Donald Trump, or writing a happy record. It’s so weird how writing a happy record feels like a profound political statement [now]. Do you feel like that?

Sam: I think what you said, that it would be there anyway, I feel similarly. I would feel kind of awkward shoehorning it in there and making it really overt. I saw somebody play recently, and they played a new song, and it was very obviously about the current administration. Which like, fuck yeah, right on, I’m upset too, but it just seemed like, “Alright, well, we gotta have one of these on the record, right?” Like, kind of obligatory. It just seems like it dates it to this particular year.

Jordan: Right, it’s like putting a timestamp on your record. Which I think has its place, but I agree, I think it feels kind of like the wrong choice for me.

Sam: Yeah. I think I try in general not to — and I’m not always successful at this — but with the [Mister Goblin] EP, I didn’t wanna have a consistent mood. Any project that I’ve done where I feel like it was all one feeling throughout has kind of just gotten bogged down or monotonous. Especially with solo stuff, because the temptation to make mopey acoustic stuff, for me, is so strong. I could just sit in my room and do that all day.

Jordan: I have a tendency to write mopey acoustic songs, and I worry that I dwell too much on negativity. I think it’s important to exercise that, but sometimes I worry that doing it so frequently without a break is detrimental to not only my own mental health, but the people who listen to it too. I’m sure that’s selling people’s resilience short, but I don’t know. I’m a little better than I used to be at compartmentalizing, and I think when I was younger, it was probably not the healthiest thing for me to be in a sad band. It made it self-fulfilling, like “Hi, I’m a singer in a fuckin’ sad band!”

Sam: I definitely felt that way too, especially with the earlier Two Inch [Astronaut] stuff. I don’t know that we were quite branded that way, but I felt like I had to kind of play into that role, for whatever reason. It did become, like you said, a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, yeah, as you get older you can kind of distance yourself from that, or use parts of it without letting it consume the music and the way that you conduct yourself.

Jordan: I really enjoyed listening to [your EP], because it feels like it covers a full spectrum, musically and emotionally. Nuance is the everyday, and how complicated it is to just be in your own thoughts over the course of two hours alone — that’s a really difficult thing to capture. I don’t know if this is something you thought about actively while writing the record, but musically and sonically I feel like it represents a very full range of emotions, even sometimes within the same four-minute song.

Sam: Well, thank you. I don’t know that I was completely conscious of that, but I think I want to do more of that in general.

Jordan: That’s the other thing: I’m not conscious of a lot of things while we’re writing a record. It’s not until after that I sort of piece together all the different things that might have been going on. There’s a part of making things that feels like autopilot.

Sam: Right. Whenever we’re making a record, I think of — do you remember the movie Bubble Boy?

Jordan: [Laughs.] Yeah. With Jake Gyllenhaal?

Sam: Yeah. Like, it’s the fucking worst movie ever made; it’s horribly offensive and just very bad. But they interviewed Christopher Walken about it, and they were like, “Didn’t you think, ‘God, this sucks, why don’t I just abandon ship’?” And he was like, “No, not for a second. When you’re making a movie, you’re just in this tent where there’s no external reality and what you’re doing is what you’re doing, and it’s complete tunnel vision.”

Jordan: Yeah, you just fully immerse yourself. It’s kind of nerve-wracking; There’s so many things along the way that could go wrong. Like [with making a film], you could get a script and be like, “This is fucking incredible,” but then there’s filming, and everything that happens in post, and studio pressure, and deadlines to meet. There’s all these external factors that I think if I ever thought about those things while making something, I would be petrified. I don’t think I’d be able to finish anything.

Sam: Right. I always wonder about that with actors who seem to only land parts in critically acclaimed movies, or are thought of as high-brow — how do you know in advance what you’re going to make? That was the other thing I wanted to ask you about: I was talking to Corey [Stroffolino, guitarist in La Dispute] and he said y’all basically made a whole other album before this album? Is it just lost to history?

Jordan: We had a bunch of time off shortly after we did that European tour with you; we all went to our separate homes, and eventually got the itch. We wrote for two months and pretty much did a 9-to-5 thing every week. We all worked pretty much independent of each other, which was a big issue in hindsight. We were in different rooms working on different things, and there wasn’t a whole lot of coherence across the board. I don’t know, we just were not excited about it. We all just came to that collective realization and decided that we were gonna start over.

Truly, writing for two months after taking, like, two-and-a-half years off and not being happy with what we were doing, there was a very real sense of anxiety, after having done [music] for 12 years, that we weren’t capable of doing it anymore. Then we started over, and it was like the two previous months hadn’t happened. It was like an immediate spark, way more instinctual. We just trusted each other and all started writing in the same room, and tried to feel it out organically and not over analyze everything. It felt a little bit more like when we first started writing music.

Very rarely have we ever scrapped anything. There’s maybe one other song in the history of our band that got left on the cutting room floor. Do you write a bunch of songs and then decide which ones you’re going to keep?

Sam: Just hearing that story gives me anxiety; Two Inch never scrapped anything. We had maybe a couple [songs] that we used for compilations or B-side things, but at least for me, I was always like, Well, we’re not going to be able to do this forever, so let’s just get everything out there that we can. Which was probably not the soundest decision, looking back.

Now for that EP, I tried to actually think about the album as a unit — what should be left out, what makes sense and what doesn’t — a little bit more than I had previously.

Jordan: Yeah, I think it shows. That’s not a knock at the Two Inch records either — there’s a certain urgency on them. I think on the [EP], there’s no deadweight in any of them, they’re whittled down to what they need to be. And there’s still a fuckton going on! There’s a ton of instrumentation, a ton of layers, and your language is so dense. Everything feels very well-considered.

Sam: Aw. Well, it’s funny that you guys write that way. [In] Some Kind of Monster [the 2004 Metallica documentary], they describe writing like “load and reload.” Like, “We had an idea and we just made it work.” Your records always feel like that to me.

My partner is a writer, and she’s working on this novel; she’ll take all the pages apart and lay them across the floor and rearrange them in a way that makes sense. Your records kind of feel like that, like it’s been so carefully chronologized.

Jordan: Yeah, especially because a lot of our songs are narratives, we’ve always tried to work in themes, I guess. So in some ways it’s been, in the past, a little bit more like what I imagine it is to try to sequence a novel. This time we tried to do it a little more like scenes in a film. I think that’s always been how we operate best. It’s partly dependent on my lyrical style — the band is leaning into my tendencies, especially because I can’t sing.

Sam: You can.

Jordan: [Laughs.] Not like you. I can hit three notes, maybe.

Sam: I’ve heard you singing all types of Matchbox Twenty, don’t give me that shit.

Jordan: [Laughs.] That’s different! But anyway, I have a hard enough time over 45 minutes worth of music trying to decide what to include and where to put it, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to write a novel. That’s something I can only dream of doing.

Sam: I think we’ve talked about that a little bit: You said you’d be interested in writing short stories?

Jordan: Yeah. Eventually, I think I’d like to try other things; I don’t think anything imminently, because I spent over 10 years trying to shake my lingering imposter syndrome being in a band, so it’s a little daunting considering having to start over from square one again, trying to be good at something else.

Sam: Yeah, definitely. Life is not long enough for that.

Jordan: There’s a part of me that considers the possibility — or I guess the inevitability — that I’m not going to make music for the rest of my life. At least not in this capacity. So there’s anxiety considering the future, having not acquired many skill sets over the course of my adult life. [Laughs.] There’s not really a fallback plan, so we’ll see what happens when we decide that we’re too old to spin in circles on stage, and can’t punch the air without throwing something out. I already do that, and I’m 31.

Sam: I think we talked about that on that tour, too — I think it was after we saw KISS, because they were so old and so bad. I think we had that conversation, like, “God, would you do that?” Like, if you had their level of whatever, would you just keep going?

Jordan: I hope that when I get to that point, I have the wherewithal and grace to decide to be done. When that will be, I have no idea. But I can’t fault anyone in KISS for wanting to continue playing music. But I don’t know that I personally can see myself on a festival stage in Germany at 65. I’d like to think that I’d find a way to do other things in my lifetime, and maybe not have to run around in circles on stage. Not that I don’t enjoy it, but you know.

Sam: Right. And so many musicians do manage to age gracefully, and it doesn’t become a spectacle. Not that you guys are anywhere near that…

Jordan: As long as you’re not stagnating, I think you can grow as a musician. I think it’s about not staying in the same place, rehashing. As long as we keep doing it, we’re gonna try to keep doing it in different ways.

(Photo Credit: left, Tracy Graham)

Sam Woodring currently lives in Maryland. He formerly played music with Two Inch Astronaut, and currently performs as Mister Goblin. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.